May 7, 2009


I often toss off the phrase “cultural and language barriers” like you should know what it means. The language barrier part is pretty obvious. And I’ve written about the culture barrier before in many different ways but the idea encompasses a wide swath of life. Here’s an example.

I live on the grounds of one of Mthatha’s hospitals and frequently visit another. Here’s the entrance to Umtata General Hospital.

As you can see, at the entrance are private security guards. Their job is to make each visitor sign in and check the trunk of each car as it leaves to ensure no one is stealing anything.

Here’s what I often see when I leave.

The guard simply removes the cone - the automatic bar has long since broken and not been fixed - and allows me to pass without checking a thing.

There could be eight gazillion reasons for this. Maybe he recognizes me and knows I’m a trustworthy type. Maybe because of the racial history of South Africa he’d never actually press me to search the trunk.

But the fact remains that he hasn’t done his job. And this isn’t a one-off sort of thing. It happens all the time. A job that the government is paying a private security company to do is simply not done.

The larger point is this: who holds these guards accountable? As far as I can tell, no one. And that is one aspect of the culture in Mthatha that I have had to adjust to. The usual standards of accountability to which I am accustomed simply do not pertain. And I shouldn’t pick on the guards. I see this lack of accountability in scores of situations all over town, including Itipini. People don’t do their jobs or do them late or do them half-heartedly and nothing seems to happen. There are no apparent consequences for inaction.

(A related cultural trait here is people who follow the letter of the law but not the spirit. One time I was leaving the hospital with some donated medical supplies, exactly the kind of thing the guards are supposed to prevent being taken from the hospital grounds. The boxes - clearly labeled “medical supplies” - were so big they didn’t fit in the trunk so I had them in the back seat. The guard dutifully checked the trunk, saw it was empty, and waved me through, not noticing or caring about what I had in the back seat. He had completely missed the larger purpose of what he was supposed to be doing.)

There was a brief gasp of accountability in February. Before then, the guards were government employees who worked about as hard as the private security guards do now. But then on February 1, all the government guards were fired and replaced by the private ones. For about a week and a half, the new guards were very diligent in checking trunks and making people sign in. It gradually began to lapse and now we are back where we were before.

I also should be careful what I wish for. The fact that I don’t have to sign in each time I enter the hospital is a tremendous time-saver and I’m glad they don’t make me open the trunk every time I leave.

On the other hand, this lack of accountability hit home this past weekend. I haven’t driven my red car in a few weeks because Jenny is out of town. It has been parked at the hospital, where I thought it would be safe behind a fence on guarded hospital premises. But when I happened to see it the other day, I noticed someone had tried to steal the front windscreen by cutting loose the rubber caulking. As you can see from this picture, I can stick my hand between the windscreen and the car frame.
The guards at my hospital are supposed to make frequent rounds of the grounds to prevent exactly this sort of thing from happening. But as the nights have gotten colder these past few weeks, I’ve seen them out less and less frequently and more frequently huddled in their hut at the gate. No one apparently held them accountable to do their job and my windscreen is the result.

This post kind of makes it sound like I’m complaining about the car. I’m really not. I’m just trying to point to some of the larger cultural trends that routinely frustrate me here.